Month: September 2019

Touch of Evil

29/09/19

Orson Welles is one of the most enigmatic filmmakers in history. His cinematic career began spectacularly with Citizen Kane in 1941, a film that has consistantly featured in critics ‘best of’ lists down the years. But – largely because of the malign influence of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon on whom Kane was allegedly based – Welles’ subsequent endeavours consisted mostly of ducking and diving, scrambling around to try to scratch up enough money to back his features. Despite the inevitable low budget, his 1958 noir classic, Touch of Evil is always a joy to watch, particularly in this version, which reinstates footage cut from the original theatrical release – and the opportunity to see it once again on the big screen is simply too enticing to pass up.

Dazzingly shot in black and white by Russell Metty, the film stars Welles as veteran cop Hank Quinlan, who operates in a small town on the Mexican border. Quinlan is a man who never lets little technicalites (such as a suspect’s innocence) get in the way of a successful conviction. When a local building contracter is blown to pieces by a bomb placed in the boot of his car, Quinlan sets about finding the killer, but the investigation is compromised by the presence of Mexican cop, Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston – yes, really), who is celebrating his marriage to Susan (Janet Leigh), and who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Okay so, Heston (and also Marlene Dietrich) wear brownface to play Mexicans, which definitely wouldn’t fly in these more enlightened times, but there’s plenty here to enthrall, not least Welles’ audacious performance as the grotesque, racist police officer.

The film feels strangely ‘modern’ in its approach and it’s interesting to note that it was realised a full two years before Hitchcock’s Psycho would once again have Janet Leigh checking in to a terrifying motel. From the infamous twelve-minute tracking shot, depicting the planting of the bomb, to the final act where Vargas struggles to get Quinlan’s unwitting confession on tape, this is undoubtedly a B-movie masterpiece and one that stands up really well after all these years. It’s always sad to consider where Welles might have gone if Hollywood had been welcoming to his post-Kane projects, rather than repeatedly slamming the door in his face.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Goldfinch

28/09/19

I somehow never got around to reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I loved her debut, The Secret History, but was not so enamoured of The Little Friend. Eleven years after reading a book I admired but did not enjoy, of course I wasn’t going to be first in the bookshop queue when The Goldfinch was released. Still, I have retained enough interest in Tartt’s work to pop along to Cineworld and give director John Crowley’s movie version a few hours of my time.

I’m glad I do, because it’s an interesting tale. I’ve read a few quite harsh reviews, but I don’t agree with those. It’s not perfect: the pace is glacial at times, and adherence to point-of-view means that some of the most exciting sequences happen off-screen. Theo’s sense of detachment permeates the movie and sometimes leaves us feeling rather detached too. And the one-hundred-and-forty-nine minute running time tests my patience somewhat: half an hour could be cut from this without sacrificing much.

But still. The plot is all convolution, contrivance and coincidence, but I don’t mind a jot. It works. Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley/Ansel Elgort) is at an art gallery with his mum one morning, passing the time before a meeting with Theo’s middle-school principal: he’s been caught with cigarettes. They never make it to the meeting, because a bomb explodes, killing Theo’s mum (Hailey Wist). As the dust clears, Theo sees Welty (Robert Joy), an old man at the gallery with his young niece, Pippa (Aimee Laurence/Ashleigh Cummings). With his dying breath, Welty gives Theo a ring, tells him where to take it, and urges him to rescue a priceless painting lying in the rubble. Theo puts the picture in his bag and stumbles home.

He’s taken in by the Barbours; he’s friends with their son, Andy (Ryan Foust). They’re a wealthy family, kindly but cold. Mrs Barbour (Nicole Kidman) in particular is stiff and uptight, doing her duty but with little compassion. As time passes, however, she becomes fond of Theo, and he starts to feel like he belongs.

Until his wastrel father (Luke Wilson) shows up with his latest girlfriend, Xandra (Sarah Paulson), and Theo is hauled off to the Nevada desert, where he befriends a Russian goth called Boris (Finn Wolfhard/Aneurin Barnard). He’s still got the titular painting though: his talisman, his link to his mother.

And when the wheels come off again, he makes yet another new start…

Nicole Kidman is the best thing about this film: she’s luminous and utterly convincing at all times. But the acting is uniformly good, the young cast particularly impressive in these demanding roles.

The film looks ravishing. The desolation of the abandoned housing estate in Nevada is beautifully rendered, the antique repair shop appears marvellous and magical.

The ending, however, feels a little deflating, the action occurring out of Theo’s (and therefore our) sight. Despite this, I think The Goldfinch is a decent film, and I might just purchase the novel now.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Ready or Not

 

27/09/19

Grace (Samara Weaving) has always wanted a family of her own. So her impending marriage to Alex (Mark O’ Brian) feels understandably like a cause for celebration – not just because she loves him madly, but because he’s a member of the prosperous Le Domas family, who have made their millions from a range of popular parlour games.

But even at the wedding, she picks up strange vibes from Alex’s parents, Tony (Henry Czerny) and Becky (Andie McDowell), and also from his decidedy odd brother, Daniel (Adam Brody).

On the evening of the wedding, after the official ceremony is over, Grace is invited into a secret room in the palatial family home to be properly ‘initiated’ into the Le Domas clan, to whom tradition is clearly all-important. Perhaps not suprisingly, in order to join their ranks, she must first play a parlour game. Grace is instructed to choose a card from a mysterious box; the one she picks has just three words written on it: Hide and Seek. She is told to conceal herself anywhere in the house and the others will attempt to find her… harmless fun, right?

Wrong.

Ready or Not is in that rare tradition of comedy horror films, comprising equal parts shudders and sniggers. It’s a genre that admittedly contains more misfires than successes but, happily, this particular contender definitely falls into the latter category. Cleverly scripted by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, the story galumphs along at such a frantic pace there’s never time to pause and consider how ridiculous it all is. It’s not long before poor Grace is being put through the mill – chased, stabbed, shot and bludgeoned. It’s certainly not the blissful wedding night she’s anticipated. Scenes of grisly body horror are skilfully interspersed with laugh-out-loud gags and there are enough twists and turns in the screenplay to keep us guessing right up to the very end.

Samara Weaving is surely destined to be major player in the cinema – the camera loves her and she makes Grace a determined, multi-faceted character; we’re rooting for her from the film’s opening moments. Admittedly, there isn’t a great deal of substance to this dark confection but, as a slice of pure entertainment, it’s deliciously horrible.

Those of a nervous disposition, take note: some scenes are not for the squeamish.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

It: Chapter Two

25/09/19

I’m late to the party on this, mainly because I feel the previous film was overrated and I’m not exactly eager to see any more. However, in the end, curiosity gets the better of me. I’ve always considered the source novel Stephen King’s best piece of writing. So here I am, watching It: Chapter Two, and moreover, viewing it on Cineworld’s ‘immersive’ concept Screen X. (Essentially, it’s a big screen with images that occasionally go around corners. Not so much immersive as meh).

The first thing to say is that director, Andy Muschietti, has been a lot more ambitious this time around, ramping up the terror content and aiming for a much more convoluted storyline. Sadly, he’s not reined himself in on the running time. Two hours and forty nine minutes, is, to my mind, about an hour longer than this material deserves. There are things here I like a lot and things that I really don’t. Too many scenes feel over-egged; starting off promisingly enough, only to be swamped by CGI-assisted ‘horrors,’ that diminish the fear quota simply by showing too much.

‘Less is more’ is a famous adage that Mr Muschietti clearly doesn’t subscribe to.

It’s twenty-seven years since the events of the first movie and in the little town of Derry, a horrible homophobic attack signals the return of killer clown, Pennywise. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member of ‘The Losers’ to still live in his hometown, realises that all is not well, and summons the other members of his teenage club. All of them seem to be doing their level best to live down their old nickname. Bill (James McAvoy) is now a succesful author and scriptwriter, currently shooting a film with none other than Peter Bogdanovich. Ben (Jay Ryan) is a hyper-successful architect, Richie (Bill Vader) a well-known stand up comedian and Eddie (James Ransome), an accident risk assessor. Beverly (Jessica Chastaine) has the misfortune to be suffering through an abusive relationship, but still appears to be surrounded by the trappings of great wealth. And as for Stanley (Andy Bean)… well, those familiar with the novel will know what to expect on that score and I won’t spoil it for the others.

Anyway, the old team reunites back in Derry, to honour the promise they made twenty-seven years ago…

Incidentally, the film continually cuts back and forth between present day and the characters’ teenage years and I have to say that the matching of young actors to adult ones is superlatively done. If only the film’s internal logic had been approached with such care. There are things here that simply don’t add up, which makes for frustrating viewing. This is a curious rag bag of a film. There’s plenty to enjoy but every time I start to settle into something close to pleasure an incongruous development steps out of the woodwork to smack me in the face. Also, there are fat-shaming comments; outmoded ideas of what a psychiatric institution looks like and the exoticisation of Native Americans. Not all of King’s tropes have aged too well.

Watch out for a neat cameo from Stephen King, visual references to The Shining and a direct quote from John Carpenter’s The Thing, amongst others. And be prepared for a long sitting. Somewhere in this labyrinthine film, thare’s a cracking little horror movie screaming to get out.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

A Taste of Honey

24/09/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I first encountered Shelagh Delaney through The Smiths, way back when, before Morrissey disgraced himself. His gorgeous early songs are littered with her words, and her face features on both album and single covers. As a young Moz-fan with literary pretensions, of course I read A Taste of Honey; of course I bought a video of the film. Since then, I’ve seen a few theatre productions too, but – honestly – tonight’s interpretation is my favourite of the lot.

Bijan Sheibani’s Honey might not be as gritty as some versions, but it illuminates the dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the play more effectively than I have seen before. The characters are more ordinary, more credible, than they sometimes appear, the quirky expositional dialogue rendered somehow hyper-real.

Jodie Prenger excels as Helen, the non-maternal mother-figure who dominates the play. She’s resentful of her teenage daughter, Jo (Gemma Dobson), seeing her as an encumbrance, a dead weight dragging her down. Unsurprisingly, Jo is resentful too; she demands attention, yearns for Helen’s love. But Helen’s too busy thinking about herself and her sex life to care what her daughter’s up to, and Jo has learned not to expect much from life. Even as she’s losing her virginity, in thrall to erudite sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes) – whose race doesn’t seem as relevant as it did in 1958 – she’s gloomily predicting that he’ll walk out of her life.

And she’s right.

Jo seems doomed to follow in Helen’s fucked-up footsteps: by the second act, all too predictably, she too is a pregnant teenager, alone and dreading motherhood. Her best friend, Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson), really wants to help; he’s even prepared to try to make a heterosexual relationship work. But Jo knows that can’t fly – and Helen’s not about to let Jo find happiness anyway.

In this National Theatre production, relationships are centre-stage. Poverty is less of an issue than it usually seems in this play: Helen’s marriage to the rich-but-odious Peter (Tim Carey), for example, seems borne more from greed than financial necessity.

The ever-present three-piece band is an interesting touch, lending the piece a kind of louche, lounge-bar-style seediness. The songs are beautifully sung, underscoring the emotional effects of the characters’ actions. I like the direction (although perhaps the scenery doesn’t need to be moved quite so much): the business and bustle, the use of understudies as strange double/twin stage hands.

This really is a ‘revival’ in the truest sense of the word – breathing new life into an ageing classic, making it relevant to today’s audience.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Downton Abbey

23/09/19

Oh dear. Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting to like this film, but neither was I expecting to despise it quite so much. I hadn’t realised I could feel simultaneously bored and irritated,  that something could rile me so much while sending me to sleep.

I guess I’m not the target audience: I’ve never watched a single episode of the television series. But I enjoyed Gosford Park, the Julian Fellowes-penned movie that laid the foundations for the whole Downton edifice, and no one can deny this is a stellar cast. So, despite the dreadful trailer, I decided I’d give it a go.

I wish I hadn’t. This is a dreadful film. It’s like an interminable Christmas TV special, but I’m not lying on a sofa full of festive food and wine. I’m sitting in the cinema sipping water, wishing I were somewhere else.

Perhaps fans of the series will experience this differently; they’re already invested in the characters and understand their histories. For an outsider, the cast list is bewilderingly vast, the development sketchy. The plot revolves around a royal visit, which sends the household – both upstairs and downstairs – into a tailspin.

It’s not a bad premise, but it’s so artlessly drawn. The servants, it seems, are angry that the king and queen are bringing their own staff. They’re angry that they’re not allowed to toil and strive in ‘their own house’ (it’s NOT their house); furious that they’re to be prevented from skivvying for a few days. Quite aside from the obvious fact that the royal retinue cannot be a surprise to them – they work for the landed gentry; they know how these things work – it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t be relieved to have the chance to rest up for a while, to peek at the monarchs while others do the donkey work. It’s comforting, I’m sure, for Baron Fellowes to believe the hot-polloi love nothing more than serving their masters. Whether it’s true or not is another matter completely.

The film purports to address this issue, by the way, as ‘revolutionary’ kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) rails against the need to pander to royalty. Still, she feels the imagined slight as deeply as anyone, and – apart from a few grumblings – fails to upset any apple carts. Likewise, formidable matriarch Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith)’s rousing speech about the changing times fails to address any issues of unfair privilege, coming down in favour of the status quo. Of course, this is absolutely in keeping with her character, but its placing in the film (at the end, after much soul-searching, as the answer to the family’s worries) means that her avowal that the building will be integral to the family – no matter what social changes happen outside – seems like an authorial voice, a pronouncement that landowners are somehow deeply connected – and thus entitled – to their wealth.

Grr.

And – apart from the brief strand about the illegality of homosexuality back in the day – it’s a boring story too.

1 star

Susan Singfield

Ad Astra

22/09/19

Imagine, if you will, that in Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard’s journey takes him not upriver to the dark heart of Vietnam, but out across the cosmos, to the Moon, Mars and ultimately Neptune – and you’ll have the essence of Ad Astra, a story about a son’s hazardous search for his lost father.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut famed for his self-control. In the film’s hair-raising opening sequence, he survives a terrifying near-death experience without so much as a discernible rise in his heart rate. But, capable though he undoubtedly is, that reserve has cost him his relationship with Eve (a barely glimpsed Liv Tyler), and he still suffers from the loss of his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneering space explorer last seen approaching Neptune and long presumed dead.

But, when a series of catastrophic power surges threatens the very existence of the universe, evidence emerges that Clifford might still be very much alive out there and, what’s more, he may have caused those power surges. Roy is given a thankless mission: to head out to Jupiter to reunite with his father and, if he can, to save the world from destruction (so no pressure there).

Director James Gray (who helmed the much-underrated Lost City of Z) has created a fascinating and original slice of science fiction. The film somehow manages to balance ravishing planet-scapes and nail-biting action set-pieces with slower, more cerebral stretches, concentrating on Roy’s internal conflict as that legendary self-control starts to break down. It’s a long journey and an eventful one, taking in a colonised moon with branches of Virgin Atlantic and Starbucks, an eerily silent space-buggy chase and, best of all, a sequence where Roy has to make a forced entry onto a spaceship, seconds before it blasts off from its launch pad.

As his quest progresses, he is increasingly confronted with a terrible realisation – that his long-missed father might not be quite the hero that Roy has always believed him to be. Pitt does an extraordinary job in the lead role, managing to emote so much from behind a permanently impassive mask; it’s probably a career-best performance from him and one that may well get a nod at next year’s Oscars.

That said, Ad Astra is surely destined to be a marmite movie. Those who turn up expecting a rollicking space adventure are in for a severe disappointment. Those seeking something more meaningful, however, are likely to have a very good time with this, particularly those who opt for the eyepopping majesty of an IMAX screening

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney